The Hong Kong government has sought since 2007 to introduce "national education" courses into primary and secondary school curriculum, aimed at strengthening students' "national identity awareness" and nurturing patriotism towards China. The programme has met with increasing public opposition in recent years, with many in Hong Kong seeing it as a brainwashing attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to suppress dissent.
Leung 'caught off guard' by national education row, Wu says
Minister new to brief, and institutional baggage, threw CY's team, Anna Wu says
If the education bureau was slow to respond to protests against national education, it's no surprise, says the woman who played a key role in defusing the controversy this month.
In a recent postmortem interview with the South China Morning Post, Anna Wu Hung-yuk analysed the unfortunate mix of a "brand new" minister and "baggage-carrying" officials who reacted slowly. Wu was named chairwoman of the Committee on the Implementation of Moral and National Education on August 22.
She also urged Leung Chun-ying's administration to review its skills and methods of public engagement in future.
Wu, an executive councillor, said the government could have defused the crisis earlier, such as after the July 29 march that drew what organiser said was an estimated 90,000 people.
She said the Leung administration was caught off-guard because the national education course was planned by the previous administration.
"National education was one of the things that had already been set up, so the current government thought everything was in place. When it blew up, they were not prepared," she said.
"If it had understood the political implications early enough, the government could have reacted to it sooner," she said.
The course sparked controversy amid claims that it was an attempt to "brainwash" pupils.
Tens of thousands of protesters camped out on the open space near the government headquarters in Admiralty for 10 days last month. Some even went on hunger strike, while university students boycotted classes.
On September 8, the chief executive backed down on the compulsory introduction of national education, after a 120,000-strong rally outside the central government offices.
On October 8, Wu's committee recommended the guidelines for national education be shelved. The recommendation was endorsed by Leung.
Wu, who is known for her liberal stance, said Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim could have reacted faster.
"To be frank, there was a new minister who came to office on July 1. He … was not the person who developed [a national education curriculum]," she said. "I'm not even sure he knew about it."
On Wednesday, Ng survived a motion in the Legislative Council calling on him to step down.
Wu said there was baggage among officials at the Education Bureau. "From their point of view, national education had been prepared for a long time and it was unfolding as a matter of normal course. They had pressed the [button on the] computer programme to start. They didn't expect that suddenly they would have to stop it.
"I can understand their mindset. They had followed the standard operational procedures; they had pressed the button," Wu said. "That caused some delay in coming to understand the issue and coming up with solutions."
Wu, a lawmaker from 1993 to 1995, agreed the strong reactions to the national education curriculum showed that the results of the public consultation on the issue were inadequate.
"A lot of people felt they were not represented, and even disenfranchised. Ultimately you [the government] have to ask yourself: is the process good enough? Are you listening?" she asked.
Wu said most of the public consultation was carried out in a structured and fixed process. "The government should adopt a more innovative approach in public engagement in future," she said.
Looking back at the heated row over national education, Wu said the moment she really felt worried was when students started to go on hunger strike at the end of August.
"When you have teenagers … on a hunger strike, it sends the signal they are willing to take sides with their life," she said. "It widens the black-and-white area and shrinks the middle ground. It was a very serious moment."